A Case of Do or Die? The Fundamental Things that Apply to Online Leadership

This is the second of a two-part essay on the organizational implications of online distance education.
Previously, I suggested that a gradual redistribution is occurring across American higher education, especially among adult learners. Local hegemony is at risk, as online interlopers, increasingly from top-tier universities and other academic behemoths, offer students choice they never had before without having to relocate. A boon to students no longer confined to just local options, online distance learning disrupts those complacent colleges not accustomed to competition. As some universities draw new students into fully online degree programs, others pay the price.

The impact might not be overwhelming or even apparent but this trend could still shift the balance of academic power—especially toward large and more aggressive universities, and away from smaller colleges without the wherewithal to launch major initiatives in the emerging digital arena. Most American higher education is—and will likely remain—local. But America’s students—especially the contemporary majority balancing study, work and often family responsibilities—will now have options as never before, and many will exercise that freedom of choice to their advantage.

The challenge is how to defend, if not extend, an institution’s enrollment base. Internal leadership and investment in an online infrastructure is critical. The problem perplexing many universities is how to do this.

My interviews with those successful in online leadership suggest that this is a delicate and dynamic undertaking. Online education has matured this past decade, raising the ante for those just entering this arena. Schools must be able to compete on value, quality and reputation on a regional, even national, scale. Meanwhile, student expectations for instruction and services grow as more universities enter the fray. The realities of the costs of marketing and recruiting, faculty time, regulation and accreditation, and extended university-wide responsibility for off-campus students become all the more apparent and sobering. The blessing of naiveté has long past.

Now, universities need to identify specific targets of opportunity—areas in which they possess a competitive advantage and a critical mass of faculty capable and willing to spend considerable time on a serious undertaking and create something unique to offer the world. We simply do not need many more generic online MBA or Criminal Justice degree programs. Nor will the public tolerate homegrown, low-quality products that do not promote interaction and engagement. Even a few years ago, a sellers’ market made each new distance learning program seem heroic in its instant success story. In our innocence, we deluded ourselves about how easy the ongoing development process would be.

Now, the impediments are very real. Among the organizational challenges are how to secure new resources or aggregate existing ones. In considering what to outsource to for-profits and what to organize centrally, some universities would rather accept the former than face the latter. The cost of doing business continues to rise, especially for those universities that want to establish a consistently high standard of course quality and faculty support. Educational technologists (especially course designers and developers)—a concept hardly known five years ago—is now a burgeoning profession and potential bottleneck. It simply isn’t in faculty DNA to depend on a junior partner in building new online courses. Educational technologists need the soft skills to collaborate even more than the technical skills to digitize content. Until providers of learning management systems (LMSs) help automate and templatize the components of online courses and promote faculty self-sufficiency, instructional support staff will increasingly be in demand and scarce in supply.

Another factor in the growing realization of the commitment to online endeavors is faculty fatigue and potential backlash. When many public universities froze faculty base salaries over several years of budget cuts, professors were enticed to online teaching as a means of supplementing their salaries. The novelty of online teaching quickly was supplanted by the reality of how much time this consumes and how much less satisfying it can be than the in-the-moment excitement of the live classroom.

We are seeing that online teaching commands a different faculty skill set that is more methodical and precise in preparation, more continuous than episodic in delivering instruction, more willing to constantly tinker and improve each iteration of an online course, and more open to unrelenting virtual communication with students. To put it crudely: The online teacher is more craftsman than showman. Faculty devoted to innovative pedagogy might not necessarily be those as committed to traditional scholarship. Yet to be seen is how this will reshape the recruiting of faculty, the stratification between those willing to teach online and those not, and the subcultures that emerge within departments.

What are some commonalities among those successful in distance learning? They know the difference between standards and standardization—and between providing leadership versus stifling initiative. Rigid homogenization and centralization is the enemy of innovation, and a recipe for resistance. The campus leaders in online programs know how to exercise the soft power of influence. They are deferential to faculty prerogative and appreciate that one institutional model for distance learning might not fit all. But they are also able to ingratiate, encourage, persuade, collaborate and naturally share credit for success.

They are not empire-builders, at least overtly, and are comfortable knowing their roles and structures might be fluid and evolving. They are obsessed with the mundane, and impatient with the overblown rhetoric so common among those with little understanding of the realities of online education. They tend to see MOOCs as more distraction than disruption. They know that genuine success is more perspiration than inspiration—and that their primary focus needs to be on running their factory, more often than not, an unglamorous, underappreciated task.

Online leaders are sensitive to the strategy and reputation of their institution and pursue what is feasible rather than what might be an overreach. Some universities are anxious to put as many courses as possible online, to promote choice among their standard student body; others want to move beyond their typical audience to attract new part-time students at a distance seeking a small number of fully online degrees. There are key investment decisions between the extensive support of many online courses versus the intensive focus on a few very appealing national, maybe global, online degree programs.

As the community of online leaders grows along with their portfolio and a greater appreciation of their diplomatic skills and critical roles, so will the effort to define and professionalize these positions. Almost all those I interviewed had emerged from within their institutions, earned the trust of others and learned the nuances of distance learning on-the-job. They had the adaptability, confidence and curiosity to expand their domain over time. But they typically anticipate that their successors will likely come from outside and perhaps have narrower duties.

As the components of an online enterprise stabilize, and their hallmarks of excellence achieve a broad consensus, those qualities needed for its leadership will likewise become more apparent—along with the specialized staff that comprise this operation. In time, we are likely to see this as a standard entity with familiar titles and expectations similar to many other university functions. For now, however, we are in a time of flux and uncertainty and in the midst of a tension between those arguing for action and those suspicious that this will intrude on what has always been the purview of faculty within their departments. This is still the same old story—the dialectic between the administrative and the academic—now playing itself out in an unsettling age of new possibilities for instructional delivery with serious stakes for our array of academic institutions.

Jay A. Halfond teaches at Boston University and serves as Wiley Deltak Senior Faculty Fellow and senior fellow for the Center for Online Leadership and Strategy. He was dean of BU’s Metropolitan College 12 years, where he oversaw the development of distance learning.

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